Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Permaculture Alumna Learns to Observe and Restore Landscapes

Deena Lewis left a job at Microsoft to design landscapes as she learned in Bastyr's permaculture certificate program.

Deena Lewis works in garden
Deena Lewis transplants bell peppers and red spinach.

Deena Lewis left a comfortable job at Microsoft when she completed Bastyr University’s Certificate in Holistic Landscape Design, a hands-on program that teaches students to garden by mimicking the patterns of healthy ecosystems. (It also teaches permaculture, herbal medicine basics, ethnobotany, soil and pest management, mushroom cultivation, business practices, and on. See more here).

Now Lewis has a job she loves designing landscapes for Cascadia Edible Landscapes in Seattle. She spoke to us recently about her work and how studying plants taught her to be more attentive to the world around here.

How did you get started on this path?

I had been at Microsoft working in business management for 12 years. At home I had been making my own herbal preparations and working a lot in my yard and helping my friends in their yards. I went on vacation with my husband and we started talking about what we want to do with the rest of our lives. Then I thought, “Well, I’ll see if Bastyr has anything I’m interested in.” I found the page for the Holistic Landscape Design program and knew instantly that I was going to do it.

It was clear right away?

Yes. The program is all about herbs and landscaping, which are my two biggest interests. And it's so comprehensive. There were things I knew would be cool, like the class on mushrooms and mycology. And there were things more unknown to me like the class on biodynamic agriculture, which sounded interesting. When I went in to talk with the academic advisor about applying, it was very easy to get started, which was kind of liberating.

Campus garden from above

What was your time in the program like?

The program itself was a really good mix of going deep on the core subject matter and getting a really broad view across some related areas. The core components are the Permaculture and Medicinal and Edible Plants in the Landscape classes, which lasted through the whole five-quarter program. We had a rotating team of teachers who are all delightful people with so much expertise. The faculty members really form the backbone of the program. They're well-known in the area and have a huge network they really offered up to us.

We had a lot of really cool outings, such as a trip to a permaculture homestead on Orcas Island. It was well put together for someone like me who didn’t have experience in plant identification. Classes like soil ecology and pest management gave a really good overview, so in the future I’ll know what the resources are and how to look them up to find information.

The capstone project is a big part of the program. What was yours like?

My client was the Songaia Cohousing Community in Bothell, an 11-acre community of about 30 people. They had drainage problems with their gardens and a sense that they could do more with their land.

They had dug a pond for water retention as part of their construction, but it never filled with water. So my class partner and I proposed modifications. We added plans for landscaping around the pond, so it would be a space they could all enjoy and not a big muddy hole in the ground. They also wanted a root cellar and more greenhouse space and secure chicken coops, so we gave them some potential solutions.

We used the design process we learned in our permaculture class, culminating in a presentation to the client that was very well received.

Class in herbal medicine lab

Tell us about your work now.

I left my job with Microsoft in February this year and I am now working at Cascadia Edible Landscapes. I met the owner, Michael Seliga, when he was on a panel for our business practices class. I’m involved in design consultation and design creation, which means sourcing materials, bidding, and scheduling and coordinating the actual work.

So far I’ve been working with a rain garden rebate program run by Seattle Public Utilities, which gives homeowners a rebate to help manage stormwater runoff. That takes the shape of installing a rain garden — a depression filled with bioretention soil so the water can run down into the ground and disperse rather than running into the sewers and overflowing the system.

I’m working with a family of four in Seattle that wants more edible food in their garden. I’m working with another Seattle woman on a food forest approach. That means a canopy layer of tall trees, then lower layers of shrubs or trees, then all the way down to groundcover so it looks more like a natural landscape. That will result in a sort of English perennial “secret garden” in the woman’s yard with lots of herbs and edible plants. She also wants to try her hand at beekeeping, so that’s part of the design.

Through the spring we’ve been getting lots of phone calls and have consultations coming up, so it’s going to be a really fun summer.

Anything else you’d like to say?

My ability to do this work comes directly from the landscape design program. The biggest thing that I got from Bastyr, aside from all the great knowledge, is that the program developed my ability to observe. I always felt that I was an observant person, but now I can see things in a landscape in a completely different way. I learned to notice how water moves through a landscape, and where a tree casts shade during the day. And observing natural things in a new way also changes how I observe other people and my work.

One of the things that really spoke to me in permaculture is how patterns exist in everything we see, whether it’s books on a shelf or the limbs of a tree or the way a neighborhood functions. I can look at a landscape and see the way things work together. I feel more tuned in. I notice more, and that's something I care about.

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Learn more about Bastyr’s Certificate in Holistic Landscape Design.

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